How People and Purpose are Your Route to Profit

In: BlogDate: Sep 23, 2020By: Billy Burgess

Nikki Gatenby is the owner and managing director of Propellernet, which was named one of the top 10 Best Places to Work in the UK for six years running. Digital marketing has always been their focus, but over the last decade they've gone from an unremarkable and locally-based company to a super-engaged, global player.

Speaking at the 2018 Happy Workplaces Conference, Nikki explains how the decision to start putting people before profit has not only brought about greater workplace happiness, but also boosted profits.

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How People and Purpose are Your Route to Profit

Hello good to meet you I’ve been really looking forward to this, always a great crowd at Happy events so thank you for having me. Ten years ago my company Propellernet was a small search marketing agencies, quite unremarkable based down in Brighton. Fifteen of us with no real game plan apart from holding onto enough clients to make the next payroll and trying not to drown in unnecessary process. Our focus on purpose was latent, it wasn't clearly defined, we pitched a lot and we won a lot. We had no real strategy around who we wanted to work with. Our staff retention was really high, mainly because people were having far too much fun to be looking elsewhere, but that soul crushing, “Propeller who?” when we talked to recruitment consultants was always there because we hadn’t really made our mark on the industry and to be honest we could have disappeared and no one would have cared. Maybe me.

So this is our story of how we grew up, how we went from Brighton to global, how we went from our own particular breed of mayhem to one of the best places to work in the UK and from unremarkable to super engaged. On that journey we’ve been named Search Agency of the Year, European Agency of the Year, won the Drum Grand Prix for creativity in our industry and many client accolades. We’ve also launched two technology products into the world and they’ve gone global and we’ve been named one of the best places to work in the UK for six years in a row.

Firstly what is search marketing science? So I’m just going to ask you to have a think about something: when was the last time you Googled something? Can you put your hand up if you’ve googled something in the last month? [Everyone's hands go up] Keep your hands up if you did it in the last week. [Everyone's hands stay up] Last 24 hours? [Everyone's hands stay up] Yeah there’s people like us all over the planet Googling, looking for things they need, they want and want advice about.

Over 40,000 searches every second, that’s three and a half billion each year. So could you put your hand up if you’ve Googled something you wouldn’t ask anybody else? You best friends, doctor, other half. Yes, I’ve done it too. We do that because it’s fast, it’s basically the font of all knowledge, Google want to organise all of the world's information, it’s anonymous and its a safe space. But what we’re doing when we Google something is we’re providing data, not in a Cambridge analytic kind of way, this is all anonymised data. But you can see it yourself whenever you type in Google, you see the autosuggest. Well as a search market agency, we can drill a bit deeper into that and we’re sitting on a mountain of insights as to what people want, we have a deep insight into what people are looking for. Search behaviour is an in the moment, bias free gift for marketers. It’s a marketers dream basically and I’m big on dreams which you’ll see in a minute.

So what does that actually mean? What do we do with all that data and those insights? Well our client Neilson came to us and said, “Could you help us sell our mounting collection of winter ski holidays?” Of course we can. Now what’s interesting about the mounting collection is you get a mounting expert to work with you to see if you can get off peaks, to make you a better skier. So it’s for people who aren't beginners but more expert in their skiing. Really competitive market, the winter market, for ski holidays so how do you find these people who aren't beginners? Well it’s really interesting when you look online at what people are searching for. If you’re looking for skiing or boarding you tend to get results around hints and tips and tricks and where to go and what to wear. But when you make it personal and you ask about skiers or boarders something really interesting happens and it’s all about tribes. [See slide “It’s all about tribes”] You can see from here there’s quite a bit of tension there which is rich territory for us as marketers to jump on the back of and get stuck in with the debate. So we enlisted the help of two Olympians, this is Jamie Nichols and Katie Summerhayes, to help us with that debate and steal market share of the really competitive ski market for Neilson as a brand challenger and this is what it looked like.

[Skiers vs Boarders video plays]

So that’s the kind of thing we do with search data so you get a handle on what Propellernet is. But that’s the what, it’s the how and the why that I think is more interesting and where the performance elements lie and how our business grew up. That was really crystallised for me when we started to really articulate our purpose, to stop it from being latent and kind of behind the scenes, but really articulate it into a vision that our team could get behind. And that happened when I met this chap. This is Ben Hunt-Davies he’s an Olympic rower, rowed for team GB in the Sydney 2000 Olympics, same time as Sir Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent. He and his eight-man crew were deemed to be underdogs but they didn’t want to be underdogs, they wanted to get on the podium and didn’t just want to get on the podium, they wanted to win gold. Ben has talked about this a lot, he’s written a book about it, how they actually achieved that and how in the four years running up to the Sydney Olympics they had their lives defined by one mantra. People in the room may know what it is, but it is a really simple mantra and it works brilliantly in the world of rowing. It is, “Will it make the boat go faster?” Will being in the training tank for an extra two hours make the boat go faster? Yes? Then we will do it. We’re going down the pub for a pie and a pint. Will it make the boat go faster? Possibly no, we shouldn’t do it then. They didn’t even go the the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics because their race was the next day and thought, “No, it won’t make the boat go faster.” So they didn’t go.

As Ben was handing around his medal - has anyone held an Olympic medal? It’s pretty cool isn’t it? It was a real defining moment for me. I was like, “Wow that’s really powerful.” What mantra could we have that defines our business, our business making decisions? Things that everyone could align behind and understand that drives forward the purpose of the permit. Ours is really simple and it’s a question and we use it everyday. It’s, “Will it make life better?” Now it can seem a bit of a negative statement but actually it really defines everything we do.

When we take on a client they give us a brief. When we first started looking at the Nielsen’s work [we thought] what can make life better for these people who are good at skiing who want to find out more. How can we entertain them? How can we get them involved in the brand? What can we do that’s going to be good for them? When we take on a client we think: what can we do to make life better for that client? Are we excited for that brand? Can we work with them? Are we like minded? Can we do really good work? When we take on new people: how can we make life better for that person joining the agency? Are they really going to add value to what they’re doing? Can we add value to what they do? Hire smart people and then just let them go, go and see what they can do and how they can make life better internally. It’s locked up there in our logo.

So the first thing I’m going to ask you to do is think about your vision and talk to the person next to you, ideally someone you haven't spoken to before, and think about your vision but also how your team articulate it and if your team articulate it really well and do they use it on a daily basis.

The world has changed dramatically since Propellernet came into existence. There was no Facebook, there was no Youtube, no Twitter. The iPad was seven years away, the iPhone four years away and the world of work has changed dramatically since we started. WikiLeaks, the share economy, the gig economy, fake news, our jobs being taken by robots, more people wanting to work flexibly and good on them. But despite this radical shake up the world of work seems to be stuck in old ways of working where we’re still trying to squeeze far too much out of people. People become a number on a spreadsheet as opposed to a human and it’s no wonder so many employees are disengaged. A recent Gallup poll updated the levels of engagement worldwide and only 30% of us are engaged in what we’re doing, which means 70% of us are just turning up. Possibly not bringing our whole selves to work, probably turning up hoping not to get fired. What a waste of collective human intelligence is that. Think about your companies, not saying you're languishing down at the 30% mark, but how much more productive could you be and how much more fun could you be having if the other 70% were engaged?

There’s some big problems to solve on this planet. This is the United Nations 17 point plan of issues we need to solve. [See slide “Sustainable Development Goals”] 17! Imagine if we had that collective intelligence of the other 70% of people what we could achieve and what we could do. I spent the last 20 years on a bit of a mission in various places I’ve worked and I’m now leading my own business in putting people before profit. Having worked in advertising for a long time and with various captains of industry I’ve been quite disappointed each time in that sole line focus on margin rather than people being human, which is bizarre in a creative industry.

So what we want to do is really get people to embrace the face: if you put people first performance increases and your profits naturally do too. At Propellernet we’ve changed that statistic and 90% of the team are engaged or super engaged. And why is that important? Well it shows up in the numbers every single time. Our staff turnover rate is 7%, the industry average is around 30% based on the latest IPA report. Our sick days are about one a year, the average is five to twelve depending which report you look at and 98% of the team would recommend working in the agency, which I’m really proud of.

So having that vision I believe has helped us shape the culture, upped our engagement levels and it’s also enabled us to start challenging the norms of what is possible at work. But before I go there has anybody listened to this podcast? (Eat Sleep Work Repeat) It’s by Bruce Daisley who’s the EMEA VP at Twitter and he’s on a mission to make life better at work and he’s got some incredible statistics around what is and isn't working. Average working hours have increased 27% since we put email on our phone, we’ve added two hours to our working day just to try and keep up and keep checking with what is going on in the world. 50% of people, that is half of all people, report being tired or exhausted work because we’re all on this cortisol drenched adrenalised attempt to keep checking email, keep keeping up with the robots.

What’s the opposite of trying to keep keeping up with the robots, the apps, the emails, the bots? How about daring to dream? Have a think about places you'd like to go, people you dream of meeting, something you dream of achieving and how amazing would it be if your employer could help make that dream come true or you as an employer could make the dreams of your team come true.

This is a dreamball machine.[See slide “This is a dreamball machine”] These are dreamballs and inside these dreamball capsules are the names of each person in the agency who’s passed their probation. If we win an award or hit a target, or just because it is sunny because there’s no rule around dreams, we release a dreamball and I aim to make that person's dream come true. Now how do we know what their dreams are? I love my job. I have dream consultations with people when they pass their probation and I ask them two questions. What are you going to do personally to make this agency and this business more successful and if that happens what dream would you like us to help make come true? I’ve got around 300 of my team’s dreams going around in my head, there’s only 60 of us but people have more than one dream it’s amazing when you start thinking about it.

This is Jim and Steve. When we won the first great places to work award we released the team two dreamballs and these two went off to the World Cup in Rio. This is Allan, his dream came out last summer and he said he wanted to motorbike across Africa. It looks more like a nightmare than a dream to me but Alan’s pretty happy and he’s developed one of the technology products that’s gone global. And this is Eshe. Eshe is in our PR team and she’s a prolific food blogger, she had a dream of creating a travelling kitchen that goes around and cooks with celebrity chefs. Her dream came out recently and we’ve helped he deliver Eshe’s Kitchen and she’s recently been working with the Hairy Bikers. So great stuff can happen around dreams. I‘d just like you to have a think now and turn to somebody else at your table. If your dream was in a dreamball machine what would your dream be?

So some of the dreams I’ve shared with you already are lovely but what we’ve realised is it is not about waiting for your dreamball to drop. Some of our teams dreams are so compelling they become part of our business plan. This is Dan. Dan was one of our technical SEO consultants and he said he wanted to spend more time making and building things. So we gave him the time and Dan built this. I don’t know if anyone's seen it it’s a tool called answer the public, it’s like a supercharged Google and he just did it over the weekend. What you do is you type in here, in this search box, what you’re interested in promoting. So say we stick with snowboarding. You type in here and you can see from the results everything that people are looking for to find out about snowboarding. So for the PR industry and the content marketing industry this is like gold dust, it's kind of our gift to that industry because we’re part of it.

So if you put snowboarding into that search box you get this kind of result - maybe 15 of these different wheels, which I know is quite hard for you to see, but there’s an incredible amount of search data insight in there. Such as: which is easier, snowboarding or skiing? So people are looking for hints and tips. Snowboarding which foot forward? Depends if your left or right-handed. Who invented snowboarding? People looking for research. What snowboard to buy? So there’s purchase intent there. That is is just a really high level perspective on this kind of information but it’s absolute gold dust. Over 140,000 people are using this a month, that’s way more than who come to the Propellernet website and a lot of our clients actually. It’s been named a top ten product hunt innovation awarded by the CIPR as a best innovation tool. Now if we hadn’t of asked we would of never of known and this would never of seen the light of day and we wouldn’t be able to make life better in the PR and content market industry.

This is Sophie and she’s our audience strategy director and she loves animals, big animals, she wants to go on safari and sunnier climes. Now the biggest animal we’ve had in the agency is an office dog so we weren’t really fulfilling her dream. So when Wild Dog Safaris approached us and said can you help us with our marketing and they were based in Namibia, they were just a little bit too small and there budgets weren’t really available. So we put Sophie and Wild Dog Safaris together. Sophie went out there on her sabbatical for six weeks and came back with a business plan. We’re now working with Wild Dog Safaris, doing there marketing for them and they pay us in free safaris. Again if we never would've asked we never would of known. It is more of a social contract than a commercial one but that is what I mean about putting people before profit because actually this is really motivating and our team are learning a hell of a lot.

This is Andy. Andy, as you can tell from his picture, is mad about bikes. This guy cycles from London to Amsterdam for fun. He was really interested in bikes and we didn't’ have a cycling client or a sport client at the time and he said he’d just really love to work more on bikes. When Evans Cycles approached us he was the mad for the job and to lead the pitch which he did brilliantly, we won the business. I’m really proud for the work we’ve done for Evans Cycles because they came to us asking us to help promote their eBike.

When you look online, there’s a lot of confusion around what electric bikes are. People are asking a lot of questions: what’s an eBike? How’s it work, do you charge it up, has it got a motor? All that kind of stuff, so we went down the nostalgia route - and I don’t know if anyone in the room was old enough to know the Ridley Scott advert for Hovis from 1973, where a little boy cycles up Gold Hill. Well, we found that little boy; he’s now a fireman - or ex-fireman, called Carl Barlow, and we got him to cycle up that hill again but on an e-bike this time! This is what happened.

[Return to Gold Hill video plays.]

Carl, he took a bit of finding; he wasn’t anywhere online - no Facebook account, he certainly wasn’t on Twitter. We found him via his sister, because she was talking about the Hovis ad - which is just bizarre, but he was brilliant. He went up the hill about 15 times, he was absolutely exhausted by the end of it.

That gives you a flavour of some of our dreams that we’re trying to make part of our business plan in an effort to make life better - not only in the agency, but in our clients’ worlds as well. The more people you can get out of their cars, it’s better for health overall and the follow-up campaign to Gold Hill was called Heart Work, which was very focused on getting commuters out of their cars and onto bikes. I’m going get the statistic wrong I think - but if you commute on a bike versus a car, your risk of heart disease goes down by 42%, which is quite an incredible statistic. Obviously it depends how far you go, but that’s an average.

So, the campaign we did, we teamed up with Orbital to do a track around the heartbeats of commuters - and it’s gone crazy within the world of cycling because it’s just a kind of really cool thing to do. Again, making life better is extending into our client work so, as I say, that gives you a flavour of some of the dreams and the vision and how we live it - but it’s not perfect, there’s some days I want to go down the end of Brighton Pier and scream, but it’s very much a commitment we’ve got and it’s something I’d love more people to be thinking about.

But it’s also the day-to-day experience of what happens at Propellernet that means people are engaged and want to do great work. I’ve captured this in a book - another book plug - Super Engaged, which talks about all the things we do on a day-to-day basis. The reason for that is, we want the ripple effect to make life better - to go beyond the agency and into the wider world which is, at the moment, pretty unengaged. If we can help up engagement levels, that will be brilliant in terms of living our vision.

In the book, there’s a manifesto. First one: make engagement a priority. Can you put your hand up if you know what your profit margin has changed by, up or down, last year? I’d hope most of you would know that. [A small number of audience members raise their hands.] Whoa, okay. Keep your hand up if you know what your engagement level was changed by. Ah, more engagement hands! That’s never happened before. That’s amazing. Well, it’s a testament to the people in the room, isn’t it? I always say if profit is what you’re looking to drive, you need to make your engagement levels as important as your margins, because people who are engaged will perform better and you’ll have better commercial gains.

Secondly: know why you exist. Knowing why you exist and having a sense of purpose means you can articulate it clearly; people know why you’re making decisions and they can understand in the business what’s going on. Knowing why you exist - the ‘why’ is really important because it gives you a soul, gives your business a soul, and gives people something to talk about. This was really compounded for us when a colleague went to the Amsterdam Music Festival and saw Nile Rodgers speak. Nile Rodgers talked about the fact that his music is very soulful because music without a soul is just noise. Our take on that is business without purpose is just admin - and who wants a life of noisy, soulless admin?

Thirdly: bring your values out to play.

If your purpose is what you’re working towards, your values are how you’re going to get there. Everyone has well-honed bullshit detectors these day; these things have got to be lived to be believed. These are our values:

Innovation • Creativity • Adventure • Fun • Wellbeing

Innovation and creativity are what clients tend to buy us for. Adventure, fun, and wellbeing is what they tend to feel. Now, when people come into the business when new starters arrive, we do values based recruitment, which I’m sure most of you do, and I ask: tell me about the innovations you’re into, where’s your creativity, show me your spirit of adventure, are you fun to be with, and do you take care of yourself? We’ve got a real burnout issue in the creative media industry; it’s almost as bad as doctors and lawyers, probably because we sell our time. I don’t want anyone in my team to suffer burnout because you can’t be productive in that way and it’s really damaging to health overall.

One of the things we do to live and breathe values, particularly well-being, is well-being check-ins. These don’t cost anything, it’s just a conversation. We ask about four things: are you taking your holiday? We all need time out. If we don’t take time out we’re going to hit burnout, so at quarterly points throughout the year we make sure people are taking their holiday. We’re not robots - yet. We need to make sure we can recharge.

Are you taking your Propel days? I’d love people to nick this idea. We give people a day a month to go and propel themselves forward - so that’s 12 days a year. I’m not particularly interested in what they’re doing that day, although I’m happy to talk about it; what I’m more interested in is what happens when they come back into the business and how they can supercharge what we’re doing.

Thirdly: are you working with our resident coach? Like any high performance team, I believe that everyone has the ability to get better, so we’ve got our resident coach in the business. It’s totally voluntary to sign up, but if people aren’t working with our coach and aren’t taking their propel days, I seriously start to wonder and have a conversation with them about if they’re taking their own development seriously. Engagement isn’t all about being nice to people; engagement’s about challenge as well and making people see that they can be the best version of themselves.

Lastly, we have a health cash plan. Again, I don’t want to know what people are using it for but I want to know they know how to use it and they can keep themselves as well as possible.

Get your people happy. I might be preaching to the converted here. It’s not rocket science, but happy people do better work than the miserable people. It’s rarely factored into the business plan, so what we do is we welcome people in, ask them their opinion, and give them a voice. That employee voice is so important. There are two ways we do that - and there are many. We have a six month probation at the agency and three months into that probation, we have an NPS check-in - NPS being Net Promoter Score. I’m sure you all know what NPS is: scoring something on a scale of one to ten, one being low and ten being high, on how likely you’d be to recommend it. We ask the person who’s just joined how likely they would be to recommend PropellerNet, just to get a feel of how they feel about the business.

On the flip side of that - and they know this; it’s an open process - we ask other people in the business to NPS that person to stay, which can feel like a massive challenge. It’s not there to be done as a blackballing sorority thing, it’s there to pick up any business challenges or issues that person may have so we can help them fly through the probation at six months. There’s a brilliant book called Who by Randy Street and Jeff Smart. It talks about recruitment and if you get recruitment wrong, it can cost 15 times that person’s salary to sort it out. So if you get it right and check in at the right stages, it makes a big difference to the business and levels of engagement.

Another thing we do is Fresh Eyes. So, when people pass their probation, I sit down with them and talk about their fresh eyes on the business. It’s like if you’re looking to move house and you see all these things you want to do with the new house when you arrive, and then six months later you can’t see them anymore. That’s what happens in business; you don’t see what you need to change, so anybody new coming in, I ask: what would you do? This has been brilliant in terms of changing the way we do our website, our recruitment approach, what the habitat of our building looks like, the clients we work with. It’s great because it’s giving that person a voice from the off, which they can use going forward.

Say no to bastards. Has anyone got a really difficult client? How do you feel about working with that client? How do you think your team feel about working with that client? Because we were saying it earlier: you’ve got to listen to people around you, because if you don’t you’ll be surrounded by people with nothing to say. I never put toxic client revenue in front of my team’s engagement because unreasonable, demanding clients who want the moon on a stick for free will take a toll on your team. They’ll suck the life out of your strategy, they’ll really hit your business, and they’ll take attention away from your more worthwhile clients. Don’t think, how can I afford to be so picky? Think: how can I afford not to?

Build a bucket list business plan. I can’t tell you the opportunities this has given us in terms of travel business, our own beer brand, property investment, technology products. It’s made such a difference. Put your skepticism to one side; imagine the loyalty this could unleash in your team, enabling them to bring their dreams to the business, and the commercial gains too - so this one is an engagement double whammy.

Last one: act like there’s no exit. No matter how you’re set up, what would you do tomorrow, what one thing would you change tomorrow if you couldn’t leave your business? There’s no exit, no prospect of sale, you couldn’t retire, you couldn’t leave - you’re there. What’s the one thing you would do differently? Whatever you’re thinking in terms of what you might change tomorrow, I encourage you to actively do it and keep thinking like that. Because if your business isn’t already, it could become your dream. I’ve seen it happen before with my very eyes.

There’s lots more of this in the Manifesto and the book, but for now you’ve been amazing. I’m Nikki Gatenby, thank you very much.

Propellernet is a search market agency, which means they examine search data (from Google searches, for example) to gain insights into what people want and what they’re looking for. This is how Propellernet has always operated, but in the early days the company’s purpose was somewhat latent.

Nikki’s efforts to formulate a vision the whole team could get behind was aided by team GB Olympic rower, Ben Hunt-Davies. In the lead up to winning gold at Sydney 2000, Ben and his rowing colleagues lived by the mantra, “Will it make the boat go faster?” This helped them prioritise training activities, choosing only the things that’d make the boat go faster. Nikki wanted a mantra for Propellernet to define the business and business making decisions. They settled on a similarly simple question: “Will it make life better?”

“When we take on a client we think, ‘what can we do to make life better for that client? Are we excited for that brand? Can we work with them?’” Nikki says. Equivalent questions are asked about what they can do for their clients’ prospective customers, too.

“Will it make life better?” extends to internal matters such as recruitment. When someone joins the agency, Nikki considers whether it’ll add value to what Propellernet is doing, and if Propellernet can add value to what the new recruit does.

Something that undoubtedly makes life better is employee engagement. Why are we stuck in the old ways of work when our lives have otherwise changed dramatically? We have easy access to once-unfathomable technology, and yet people are still getting sucked dry at work, with no real belief in being there in the first place.

Realising that engagement not only means higher productivity, but also enhances the wellbeing of the entire workforce, Nikki started putting people before profit. At Propellernet, 90% of the team are engaged and the benefits are manifest.

“Our staff turnover rate is 7%,” says Nikki. This is a whopping contrast to the industry average of around 30%. “Our sick days are about one a year. The average is five to twelve, depending which report you look at. And 98% of the team would recommend working in the agency, which I’m really proud of.”

What You Will Learn in This Video

  • People are humans, not just gatherers of revenue
  • Why Propellernet adopted the mantra, “Will it make life better?”
  • How refining Propellernet’s purpose created greater workplace happiness and boosted profits
  • Employee engagement not only means higher productivity, but also enhances the wellbeing of the entire workforce
  • How Propellernet achieved 90% team engagement

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About Nikki

During her time at Propellernet, Nikki has overseen its transformation from a small, Brighton-based digital marketing agency to a globally operating powerhouse. She has led a team that has tripled margin, quadrupled revenue and generated ten times more profit. And she has proved beyond all doubt that putting people first creates genuine business success.

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